Key West voters face decisions on cruise ship tourism

KEY WEST, Fla. – Three charter amendments in the Nov. 3 ballot are allowing Key West voters to decide if they want to ban big cruise ships, be more selective on cruise lines, and limit the number of cruise passengers who will be allowed to disembark.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the federal government to impose limits on cruise ships, so opponents like Michael Halpern, a Key West attorney, argue that passing the three charter amendments will further devastate the area’s economy. Halpern co-owns the Southernmost House on Duval Street.

Supporters like Mark Songer, a Key West accountant, say the amendments come as a result of a lack of leadership when it comes to the way the city manages cruise ship tourism. Songer is the treasurer of Keys Last Stand, an environmental nonprofit organization.

If the charter amendments pass, The Key West Cruise Terminal would limit the number of passengers and crew who disembark daily. (Local 10 News)


The Key West Bar Pilots Association sued to have the charter amendments scrapped from the ballot, but the judge in the case decided to leave the decision in Key West voters’ hands.

The charter amendments have the backing of The Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, a grassroots movement of 2,500 petitioners that want to help protect the environment and improve quality of life.

These are the amendments' descriptions on the ballot:

  • “Limiting persons disembarking from cruise ships to a total of 1,500 per day.”
  • “Prohibiting cruise ships with a capacity of 1,300 or more persons from disembarking.”
  • “To give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.”

Key West had almost a million cruise ship passengers visit last year, according to a city spokeswoman. And the city attracted 2 million tourists in 2018, according to a report for the city produced by Rockport Analytics.

Michael Halpern said if Key West voters approve the three charter amendments the changes on cruise ship tourism will devastate the local economy. (Local 10 News)

Halpern said the passing of the amendments will mean local business owners will continue to have fewer customers. He said the amendment also disregards cruise lines' recent investments in green technologies.

“It is named ‘The Safer Cleaner Ships,’ but it bars the cleanest safest cruise ships on earth from coming into Key West,” Halpern said adding, “This referendum crushes our community’s opportunity to have safer, cleaner cruise ships.”

Songer said passing the amendments is important because smaller ships and fewer port calls at the Port of Key West will help protect juvenile coral and the health of locals.

“The cruise ships will sit here for 8 to 10 hours a day and they still run their engines and you can see the plume over the island,” Songer said. He added, “the cruise ship traffic up and down the channel disturbs the sediments on the bottom.”


The tourists' average spending and the fees associated with cruise ships entering the Port of Key West result in more than $90 million of revenue and more than 800 full-time jobs in the city, according to the Key West Chamber of Commerce. The estimate is based on the $75 million passengers and crew spent in 2019.

“We are trying to be very honest about the economic impacts as well as the environmental and health and safety impacts and it is a tough place for people to balance,” Songer said.

Mark Songer said he supports the passing of the charter amendments that put limits on cruise ship tourism in Key West. (Local 10 News)

When it comes to the city’s budget, Mark Finigan, the city’s finance director, said the pandemic’s limits on cruise ships did impact several critical revenue sources. The expenditure offset, he said, was to freeze the wages of about 30 employees. Finigan also said the city used one-time transfers from the insurance fund to help the general fund revenue shortfalls.

The related passenger fees generated $5.9 million in 2019, according to the city. But the city is also on the hook for related industry support expenses, which include $1.1. million for the U.S. Navy and $1.4 million to get cruise passengers from the Outer Mole to the downtown area.

Despite the financial losses, several cities around the world have started barring big cruise ships or creating capacity caps to manage environmental concerns and overcrowding to include Venice, Italy. Songer hopes Key West will be next.

Halpern said that if voters decide to support the three charter amendments; the changes will still need to pass judicial scrutiny.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."